Friday, 4 December 2009

Taking the Train to Graffiti Land - an essay.

Ok, so let’s see how this goes…
I’ve been asked to write a “small” essay on two of my chosen books/journals that have helped me research into my Graffiti on Trains “problems”.
I have chosen “Taking the Train” by Joe Austin and also Timothy Werwath’s paper on “The Culture and Politics of Graffiti Art”.
I will be referring to the graffiti artists as writers, as essentially that’s what they are, only instead of paper or a canvas they are using the urban landscape.

Taking the Train by Joe Austin is an incredibly good read, if you’re interested in the history of New York City’s battle with graffiti and the politics behind it. It is a lot more than just about the fight between the “authority figures” and the “writers” as I had originally thought.
I have taken most of my notes from the prologue and it’s two stories, as these interested me the greatest.
Austin tells two different stories in the Prologue, one about “writers” and their fight against the local authorities and the second about businessmen from Europe and the cover up of the “grime” of New York City, to round them up shortly!
The first story talks about “three” writers called “CAINE”, “MAD 103” and “FLAME ONE” who proceeded to celebrate the forthcoming 4th of July celebrations by “decorating” a full subway train, all eleven carriages, from top to bottom. The newly decorated subway train was scheduled to fly through the city on its designated route. The writers worked in a “coordinated bicentennial theme”. By choosing the subway they wanted it to be in full view of the people of New York City, as a patriotic gesture on the nations 200th birthday. Almost as a gift to their city. Sadly the MTA (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority) had a problem with it:

“The Metropolitan Transportation Authority steadfastly refused to be upstaged by what they felt was vandalism – no matter what the work’s patriotic appeal – they would not risk the public mistaking the Freedom Train (as it was called) as part of the officially sanctioned celebration” (Austin,Taking the Train, 2001:2)

They then proceeded to take the train out of service, destroy the paintings and then arrested the writers.

In the second story Austin talks about a large group of successful hotel managers from Europe and the Middle East that were asked to go on a free weekend trip to New York City, by a London based touring agency, in celebration of the number of U.S. citizens that had travelled abroad that year as it had reached a record number.
As expected they went on their merry way, “sight seeing” all of New York City’s attractions. Unbeknownst to them, a subway carriage had been renovated and repainted, at the cost of $4,000, which had been arranged and paid for especially by the touring agency to cart them to the World Trade Center. Just to divert the “dirty and dangerous” image of New York City. Funnily enough the businessmen did notice!

“[The Businessmen] wanted to know what had happened to the “real” New York City they had come to see…”It’s very disappointing not to have something that’s part of the local colour.” Remarked a German.” (Austin, Taking the Train, 2001:3)

The businessmen’s views and opinions were noted and put in to a newspaper article about their visit, only to get the reply of the New York Times’ editor…

“Dear Deprived Hoteliers…Let us fill you in…you didn’t miss a thing. The trains are an unsightly mess and imply that no one’s in charge and no one cares enough except to shield distinguished visitors. Serves ‘em right, in a way, that you should feel deprived.” (Editorial, New York Times, 1984:22)

I can’t help but feel he’s lashing out at the wrong people, surely he should be angry at the Tour company who forked out the money to spruce up just one subway train for the only purpose of making the visitors feel “safe”.

Austin helps gain the sympathy towards the “writers” by stating that it is a “sophisticated and Illegal art” which is practiced on subways, where everyone will see it. The writers seem to have a powerful desire to “speak to the city” through their illegal art. Almost like they are giving something back. Why is this a problem? Is it because they have merely “upstaged” the council’s work, in celebrating the 4th of July? Should it not be a public activity?

Now for Werwath, I found his paper quite interesting also as it talks a lot to do with graffiti and where it originated from, but also a lot to do with the “selling out” of graffiti artists who have their work displayed and paid for in galleries, which defeats the purpose of graffiti as “as art” as it was originally the lower class shouting out to be noticed and to tell the rest of the world their repudiation towards the working-class environment they were apart of.

“Most who worked in menial, low class jobs felt that they had no individuality in the work place; that they were just part of the city’s life-blood and could not be distinguished from the next worker.” (Werwath, Art Crimes: The Culture And Politics of Graffiti Art, 2006:5)

They wanted to be noticed and recognized and show the world they were still alive and kicking.

“How many people can walk through a city and prove they were there? It’s a sign I was here, my hand made this mark. I’m fucking alive!” – Omar” (Werwath, Art Crimes: The Culture And Politics of Graffiti Art, 2006:5)

I particularly like this quote as it’s from a New York Graffiti writer and you can tell just from this quote he is proud and does feel alive and “apart of it”.

Werwath also talks about how there is a fine line between graffiti and vandalism, yet they come from completely different motives. I know that when I see someone’s scrawled “ I love Lucy” on a seat or wall, it actually does irritate me, but if I were to see a nicely designed and thought out “I love Lucy” design it wouldn’t bother me. As surly that’s art? Something that makes you notice it, and see beauty in it. Sadly a lot of people put graffiti and vandalism together as they both originate from being bored. Only writers put more effort in to their design than vandals.
Werwath also talks about how graffiti is now used commercially, so some boundaries have been broken down as time goes on. We now have magazines we can get our hands on to read about and look at graffiti in the modern world, we also have well known and prestigious “graffiti artists” which I’m sure most of us will have heard of at least one.

“Many multinational corporations have selected graffiti writers to spay their logos and ad campaigns onto city streets in return for a pay check. Companies that have practiced this include Coca-Cola, Nike, McDonalds, Am General Corp, IBM and TIME magazine.” (Werwath, Art Crimes: The Culture And Politics of Graffiti Art, 2006:11)

These example corporations are all seemingly “young” and are continually reinventing themselves to keep “up to date” with the youth of today and it works! So taking from these examples perhaps the graffiti subway trains could work.

But using graffiti for commercialization could arise some arguments, as graffiti was originally used to shout out and be noticed against the boring urban city where the people were just workers, helping to “pump the city’s life-blood”.
Like all things, when money is involved it becomes a lot more complicated.

The fight against authority is a prominent subject between these two pieces of work, as this drive for individuality and to be noticed is where graffiti as an art came from. It is the difference between that and vandalism. It has steamed from boredom but the satisfaction has driven it further. And perhaps the thrill of it being illegal and just to “piss off” local authority they put their heart and soul in to it.

Austin and Werwath both talk about the writer’s desire, and Werwath states “Graffiti has been around since men first started drawing pictures in caves.” (Werwath, Art Crime, 2006:2) There were no authoritative figures then like we have today but still there was this desire to draw. To make a simple cave in to their own space.

The question arises “Could graffiti be a way in marking ones territory?” and the answer in some cases would be yes, think of the gangs in New York City, making other gangs aware of whose territory they were in.
Both pieces touch on New York City’s near-bankruptcy in the mid 1970’s but instead of focusing on what was the real problem the local authorities blamed it upon the graffiti in and about the city. A hierarchy system of authority at its worst.
The use for graffiti in advertising and commercialization again links both pieces of text but also has a link with a journal I read about unconventional cultural lessons by I.M, Calvin. In where Calvin talks about graffiti being an ”unconventional advertisement billboard that is created by students and their peer group to attract attention from and to one another. It demonstrates the use of graffiti and how it can be a “truly academic exercise” for lessons in language and culture.

Calvin, I. M, 2005, Graffiti, the Ultimate Realia: Meeting the Standards Through An Unconventional Cultural Lesson, Journal devoted to the teachings of Spanish and Portuguese.

It is said “ If you place an artist in a blank room with nothing but paints they will make it a masterpiece.”
The same thing can be said about the urban landscape, as it really is a blank canvas.
Perhaps the architects could collaborate with graffiti writers and make something completely new and different. If the writers and given the right to write it would become under control and not so much of an “irritation”.
Graffiti writers are rebelling because they cannot express themselves and don’t want to live in a gray “same old” world.

I’m going to end on a quote as I think it sums this whole essay up perfectly.

“The ultimate point seems to be: What kind of city do people want to live in? The stone gray and earth colours that we’ve erected around us, the vast labyrinths of monolithic structures that dwarf the scale of man set the tone for daily lives of city dwellers. It’s the natural impulse of people who are very alive to decorate their environment, make it beautiful. The ultimate question raised by graffiti is: What would a wildly decorated city look like?” (Jamie Bryan, High Times, 1996:52)

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